Saturday 26 January 2019

Notre Dame de Paris - Review

London Coliseum, London


Music by Richard Cocciante
Lyrics by Luc Plamondon
Directed by Gilles Maheu

Richard Charest

They say context is key and thus two things are paramount prior to watching Notre Dame de Paris. Firstly, the show is firmly of its time: with Victor Hugo’s original work having been published in 1831 and taking place in 1482, equality of any sort is lacking; the second consideration is that this is a thoroughly French production and that any comparison with its West End contemporaries is moot. The emphasis here is on the "spectacular", rather than on the musical and the distinction cannot be underestimated. 

The narrative famously charts the arc of bell-ringer Quasimodo and his love for Esmerelda; a Romany who takes a poet as a husband, falls in love with a soldier and is herself the obsession of the (celibate) Archdeacon of Notre Dame. It’s quite the love rectangle, and that’s before the soldier’s betrothed comes into play. Needless to say, it does not end well - a happy ending would be difficult to achieve and at odds with Gothic literature.

In what proves to be a curious evening There are stellar vocal performances across the board; both earnest and powerful. Gringoire (Richard Charest) sets the bar high with the first number, an ode to cathedrals that firmly channels Hugo’s original objective of persuading French society to treat these architectural masterpieces with the respect he believed them to be deserving of (Le Temps des Cath├ędrales). This is swiftly followed by an introduction to Clopin (a commanding Jay) and, thereafter, the dynamic between Frollo (Daniel Lavoie) and Quasimodo (Angelo Del Vecchio).

Before she even steps to the front of the stage, eyes are drawn instantly to Esmerelda (a role played expertly by Hiba Tawaji). With a headset microphone and green dress Tawaji stalks the stage in a manner reminiscent of Britney Spears’ iconic I’m A Slave 4 U 2001 MTV VMA performance. All that is missing is a Burmese python.

That’s not a bad thing, however. This is more like a concert, after all - one which takes influence from Italian opera and French pop music and the effect is at once melodramatic, rousing and bold.

The principals are supported by a troupe of acrobats and dancers, bursting with energy and colour throughout, once again making this production feel more like a concert. However there is more than one occasion during which the stage feels too big for this grand vision, and challenges the decision to put this on at one of the West End's largest venues.  

Despite the lead vocals being sung live, they sit atop a prerecorded and heavily produced backing track and while the musical support from English National Opera’s orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Brind, is a nice touch, it feels token. Ultimately it is nigh-on impossible to tell what is being performed live and what is not. Performed entirely in French, the production is localised for the British audience with surtitles set atop the stage. Given that each number’s substance is thin, the need for the textual assistance slowly wears off; watching the performers is enough to grasp the storyline. 

Ultimately this is what hinders the production from packing a punch. This is a show built on a series of songs that fail to carry a narrative thread effectively. But for a musical spectacle, perhaps that’s not necessarily too important after all.

Runs until 27th January
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar
Photo credit: Alessandro Dobici

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